Memory As We Age

By Helen Hirsh Spence

According to the American Psychological Association, there is good news when it comes to memory changes in older adults. Research affirms that there is no such thing as ‘over the hill’.

The brain’s volume peaks during an individual’s early 20s and begins to decline from that point on. Blood flow drops the most in the frontal cortex which is related to semantic functioning (verbal fluency, finding the right words). It also becomes more challenging to plan and organize (executive function). A normal ageing brain experiences less blood flow. Nerve cells can shrink and there can be fewer connections between nerve cells; nonetheless researchers no longer believe that, as people age, they necessarily go into mental decline.

Subtle changes occur naturally as we age. Examples such as forgetfulness (the repeatedly, misplaced cell phone), and a slowing down of recall (names, dates, events) are common. That expression, “It was just on the tip of my tongue,” is typical of the ageing process.

New learning, and recalling new learning, are still very much intact, but the processes are slower. ‘Semantic memory,’ the ability to recollect general knowledge and facts, actually increases with age. Older adults can continue to effectively learn new information, retrieve it, and store it in long-term memory ‘episodic memory,’ sometimes referred to as autobiographical memory, is related to personally experienced events and allows for re-experiencing previous events. Although this type of memory tends to decline, it is mostly just annoying and is of no major concern. It’s only when memory loss interferes with the performance of daily tasks and other habitual roles that one has to start worrying.

The negative perception that everyone inevitably loses their memory as they age is a damaging myth. Studies have proven that adults who believe these negative stereotypes do less well on memory tasks and experience greater cognitive decline than those who have a more positive attitude. When people think they can do something well (self-efficacy), they tend to perform better. This is consistent with research on optimism and gratitude.

How to remain mentally sharp:

  • The habit of being mentally active, learning something new such as a foreign language or a new skill helps keep your memory fit.
  • Strenuous aerobic exercise (at least twice a week) will get blood flowing and bring more oxygen to the brain. This is considered one of the best ways to stimulate cognition.
  • When learning something new, try to use other senses, such as smell, sight (colour) or touch (feeling an object). This will help boost memory.
  • Tricks that include visualization and mnemonics help retention of memories.
  • Staying mentally active by playing games or, better still, learning new games are a fun way to remain mentally sharp.  In other word, ‘Use it or lose it.’
  • Don’t waste brainpower on remembering silly items (where you last put the keys), develop habits to help you associate where you left them. Repeat the same locations every time to keep that kind of information readily accessible.
  • Repetition aids memory. When you learn something new, repeat it out loud or write it out on paper. Repeating helps with retention.
  • Repetition needs to be spaced out over time for increased effectiveness. After learning something new and repeating it a few times, go back to it after an hour and then continue to extend the time between the learning. This “spaced rehearsal” improves memory retention.
  • Try not to be distracted when learning anything new. Multitasking adds to confusion or absentmindedness.
  • Not being able to call up a memory temporarily is called “blocking.” This occurs when another similar memory comes to mind. An example of blocking is when you are surrounded by family and you call out your brother’s name instead of your child’s name. Another similar memory has blocked the one you are seeking. The right name usually comes to mind shortly after the blockage.


  • Memory Changes in Older Adults, American Psychological Association
  • Preserving and improving memory as we age, Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Women’s Health Watch, February 2010.
  • Episodic and Autobiographical Memory: Psychological and Neural Aspects, Wheeler, M., International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioural Sciences

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